By Susie Buchecker
Nine years after establishing Nature Play SA, Education graduate and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Sarah Sutter is still passionate about turning children’s screen-time into green-time.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir.
This is a sentiment Sarah Sutter (BEd ’93) would heartily agree with.
An educator, CEO, mentor and passionate advocate of connecting children and families with nature and the outdoors, Sarah heads up Nature Play SA, an independent, not-for-profit organisation with a vision “to empower the South Australian community to engage their children in nature through outdoor learning and play”.
Sarah was initially inspired to work in education by her mother, a PE teacher. But with an extraordinary talent for netball, her first stop was the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. Returning to Adelaide, Sarah commenced her Bachelor of Education at Flinders University.
“Flinders played a big part in my professional and sporting life. I had some wonderful mentors at Uni,” Sarah says.
“In particular, two lecturers – Russell Brown and Barry Squires – were a big influence and had such a positive impact on me wanting to teach. I was starting to represent Australia in netball at that time, and they really supported me with both my studies and my netball career.”
That netball career led Sarah to dual gold medals at the 1995 World Championships and the 1998 Commonwealth Games. She was an inaugural Adelaide Thunderbirds player and Vice-Captain of the 1998 and 1999 championship-winning teams, and is recognised today as one of SA’s most elite netball figures.
Sarah’s passion to lead Nature Play SA was forged in her work as a Physical Education teacher, where she noticed that many young students’ gross motor skills were under-developed.
“I saw very quickly how they weren’t connected. They weren’t landing properly when they jumped, skipped or hopped, or even in throwing a tennis ball – the physicality and coordination wasn’t there. They were also risk-averse,” Sarah says.
“When one of the mums thanked me for taking their child to the national park, I was really surprised. I thought ‘isn’t that just what you do?’ The adventurous outside play we had as kids didn’t happen anymore.
“My own childhood was so much about being outdoors… and those experiences were so important for our wellbeing, our gross motor skills, and our physical and mental health.”
The challenge was in finding the balance between the modern world, where digital technology and screen-time is an increasing distraction, versus the natural outdoors where free play is so important for a child’s imagination, creativity and wellbeing.
Sarah wanted to make a difference. She started Nature Play SA with just two people in 2014. Their first child-friendly activity was cubbyhouse building in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. It attracted 100 people. Cut to three years later, when 8000 attendees turned up at Kuitpo Forest for a child-led program, including kite flying, nature walks and rope courses. The appetite was clearly there for families wanting to spend time outdoors in nature. Sarah now heads a team of seven full-time staff as well as casuals.
“I have a great team of educators and a great events team. We organise programs and big forest fests to give parents and children that experience of ‘outside’, and show them how they can do it themselves.”
Lobbying state and local governments on policy change, Sarah has advocated for programs and initiatives that assist educators and families to engage more in outdoor play and form a connection to nature.
WELLBEING AND BE WELL CO
Throughout her professional and sporting career, Sarah has gained lifelong wellbeing skills. In a natural segue, she is about to transition out of Nature Play SA to concentrate on being a professional wellbeing trainer/leadership consultant.
She has trained with Be Well Co, which delivers evidence-based mental health wellbeing programs and strategies to individuals and groups. Be Well Co’s programs and solutions have a direct research link with both Flinders University and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.
Sarah says, “Its wellbeing program is one I truly believe in – and it still all connects with nature. My next dream is to take the learning from Nature Play and deliver the Be Well Co program while advocating for everyone’s mental wellbeing. I’m such a believer that you can’t perform at your best if your wellbeing also isn’t working at its best.”
Sarah believes that the thinking skills and transfer of knowledge approach she learned in her degree at Flinders are at the core of her success.
Find out more at: bewellco.io